Property Management Q & A
Q: A tenant of mine was the victim of a “home invasion” break-in (it was a co-worker who was mad at him for some reason that broke in). He says he is breaking his lease (he is in the first month of a 12 month lease) and moving out. Does he have the legal right to break his lease? If not, what do I do now?
A: The legislature has identified certain circumstances where a tenant has a legal right to break a lease. For example, where the landlord fails to perform a repair obligation, one of the tenant’s alternatives is to terminate the lease and vacate )see RCW 59.18.090(1)).
Even where the landlord has not defaulted in his or her obligations, some tenants still have the right to termination of their lease without penalty. Examples include RCW 59.18.220 (permitting certain military personnel to terminate their leases) and RCW 59.18.575 (permitting victims of domestic violence to terminate their leases). In both of these cases, certain documents need to be provided to the landlord to exercise the right to terminate early.
In your case, the tenant was a victim of criminal conduct. You imply by mentioning in your question that it was a “co-worker” that broke in, presumably because you believe the tenant was somehow at fault. Actually, merely being victimized by criminal conduct does not constitute a legal ground to terminate a lease, whether or not the tenant is acquainted with the perpetrator.
I have been asked on many occasions whether a tenant could break a lease because of a sex offender in the neighborhood, an unsolved arson spree nearby, or other circumstances where the tenant fears for their safety. Clearly, tenants believe that with “good reason” they can terminate a lease and expect to be released from ongoing liability under the lease. I do not know how they come to hold this view, but perhaps it arises from some “folk wisdom” where a friend or acquaintance in a similar situation was released from their lease without penalty.
Notwithstanding this expectation on the part of some tenants, except in the limited circumstances outlined above, the tenant remains bound to the lease and does not have the unilateral right to early termination without penalty. Should a tenant vacate under this circumstance, you should treat them as you would any other tenant who abandoned the property.
Abandonment is governed by RCW 59.18.310 and outlines in detail the ongoing rent obligation of the tenant who has vacated. If the tenant occupies under a lease, subsection (2) controls and provides as follows, “[W]hen the tenancy is for a term greater than month-to-month, the tenant shall be liable for the lesser of the following: (a) The entire rent due for the remainder of the term; or (b) All rent accrued during the period reasonably necessary to rerent the premises at a fair rental, plus the difference between such fair rental and the rent agreed to in the prior agreement, plus actual costs incurred by the landlord in rerenting the premises together with statutory court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees.”
Notice the reference to rerenting the premises at a “fair rental.” It may be reasonable, if market conditions have changed since the original tenant entered into the lease, to rerent it at a lesser rental rate. As you can see in the statute, the original tenant is responsible for the rent loss.
Christopher T. Benis an attorney with Harrison, Benis, and Spence, LLP, with offices in Seattle. The information contained herein is not legal advice. You are encouraged to consult with your attorney before relying on anything contained herein.